Wrapping up a 25 year tenure with the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of British Columbia, soon-to-retire president, Paul LaBranche, characteristically looks through the lens of his organization’s strategic plan to reflect on what he has accomplished. The five underpinning goals and associated performance measurements that steer BOMA BC’s course could also be seen as LaBranche’s job description and the hallmarks of his career.
As the chief staff officer, he has served as both the commercial real estate industry’s voice and an informed conduit for messages coming back from government and the wider community — a role that calls for a delicate two-way player who can defend his members’ interests and advise them what’s in their best interests in ever evolving times. Along the way, he’s been an able administrator and a champion of professionalism for a membership that has more than tripled to today’s roughly 700 individuals representing large, mid-sized and smaller real estate players and key service providers.
“I found that putting some structure in place through the long-range strategic plan was very beneficial for the organization and for me,” LaBranche recalls. “The industry, certainly, is changing, and I think we’ve become a broader, better recognized organization over the years.”
Those accustomed to seeing him in action are a little more effusive.
“Paul has never lost sight of the importance of advocacy, fiscal responsibility, education, charitable partnerships and networking to keep BOMA BC relevant to its members and the principal voice of the commercial real estate industry,” says Lesley Heieis, vice president and managing broker with Colliers International in Vancouver, who served as BOMA BC’s 2006-2007 chair.
“Every level of government knows that BOMA is the go-to for the commercial real estate industry. Our brand has become really strong under his guidance,” concurs Richard Anderson, president, Hunter McLeod Realty Corp., a past BOMA BC chair who joined the board of directors in sync with LaBranche’s arrival.
Suite of skills and experience
Although it was something of a new career direction, LaBranche brought skills and experience that made him a good fit for the association’s needs when he assumed its helm in 1993. A transplanted Ontarian who’d long since made Vancouver his home, he was trained as an engineering technologist at Ottawa’s Eastern Ontario Institute of Technology (since absorbed into Algonquin College) and had worked briefly for the federal public service after graduating. A young man’s curiosity to explore a new locale proved to be a pivotal life decision.
“It was a part of Canada I hadn’t seen so I just made my mind up to go west, and the rest was history,” he says. “The west coast lifestyle was so compelling.”
Soon, he found himself on the job sites of some significant provincial infrastructure projects, including the Revelstoke Dam and the container facility at the Port of Vancouver. Then, after taking time to travel through Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia, he moved onto the project management track and into the burgeoning condominium sector. The exercise of coordinating all aspects of a construction project sparked an interest in organizational development and led to work in the not-for-profit sector, while he also earned a business degree from the University of Seattle.
An understanding of real estate’s structure, its trades and its business pressures arguably positioned him to thrive in his next undertaking, but he didn’t necessarily foresee it was going to sustain him to retirement. “When the opportunity came up with BOMA, I thought it was only going to be for a short while,” he affirms.
However, the match of BOMA’s diverse outreach responsibilities to his own multi-tasking inclinations simply made other job options less appealing. “Working with an association like BOMA is really something like running a small business, but with the assurance of being part of an industry network. If you’re not in it for the money, but you’re in it for what you can get out of life, it’s a very rewarding career,” he says.
Firsts and lasting impacts
The rewards have flowed both ways as BOMA BC reaps the Paul LaBranche legacy of innovation, advocacy, mentorship and prudent management. The long-term strategic goals he pushed to implement now double as a checklist of his leadership accomplishments. The association is the acknowledged advocate for the commercial real estate industry in the province and enjoys strong public recognition; it supports its members in their business and ESG (environmental, social, governance) obligations, and provides outreach, training and networking for professional development; and it is a province-wide organization, now including a Victoria-based branch.
Early in the 2000s, LaBranche envisioned and drafted Go Green guidelines to help owners/managers assess and improve the environmental outcomes of building operations — a program now commended as the forerunner of BOMA BEST and, equally importantly, as one of the first critical focuses on existing buildings.
“When BOMA BC started it, there were no standards for existing buildings anywhere,” he says. “LEED for existing buildings came later.”
Other evidence of what Heieis terms a “passion for sustainability” is easy to see in e-Energy Training — a BOMA BC initiative since rolled out as a national program — the launch of the charitable Green Building Foundation, and various strategic partnerships with service providers and government funding agencies to help members deploy green technologies and improve building performance. The latter also demonstrates LaBranche’s skill in negotiating cost-sharing and agreements for BOMA to manage government incentive dollars.
“He’s so innovative with sources of revenue. That’s allowed us to keep our dues in check,” Anderson observes.
Beyond his formative contribution to BOMA BEST, LaBranche has also provided welcome input to BOMA Canada’s council of chief staff officers and other industry associations that share BOMA’s concerns.
“We work together on a regular basis, either through teleconference or in person, to share experiences and flag issues that arise in one region that we expect we’ll see elsewhere,” explains Dean Karakasis, executive director of BOMA Ottawa. “Paul has always been great, especially on the environmental file, in sensing what’s looming and being a guide and a resource. Another big strength is his ability to find ways to influence and work with government. That was always a model that we could all use.”
“LandlordBC and BOMA both represent the built environment — residential rental housing and commercial respectively — and our two organizations have collaborated on the impact of the carbon tax and hope to continue further dialogue,” says David Hutniak, chief executive officer of LandlordBC. “Paul’s knowledge on this issue was critically important in our discussions, and his leadership for his industry reinforced the professionalism he is known for.”
For his part, LaBranche maintains there’s no great magic to being a government-whisperer. His strategy has been “transformation through a voluntary participation method” which typically has the dual benefits of making the case for change to the industry and showing regulators that a heavy hand is not warranted.
“Paul has been a trusted and valued partner of the Province for over a decade through BOMA BC’s voluntary leadership initiatives for improving the energy efficiency of the commercial real estate stock and lowering emissions, thereby paving a path for market transformation in British Columbia and Canada,” says Andrew Pape-Salmon, executive director, Office of Housing and Construction Standards, in B.C.’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
“We try to be proactive in everything we do,” LaBranche reiterates. It’s the same open approach he’s used in considering the interests and needs of a diverse membership that he categorizes as one-third large institutional investors/owners, one-third public sector managers of government, health care and education portfolios and one-third mid-sized to smaller private sector companies.
“Pension funds tend to be bigger players in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal whereas Vancouver is very much more a boutique market,” he advises. “You have to really understand the ownership.”
Heieis judges his efforts a success in that regard.
“Paul’s sincerity, candour and sense of humour quickly put me, and all of us, at ease, but he still kept me and the other board members on our toes,” she reports. “He made sure that every opportunity to better serve our industry was explored.”
LaBranche retires from BOMA BC at the end of this month.